Wedged between the controlled chaos of Baltimore and
Annapolis, this river isn't the most chic, the most scenic . . .
or the most anything. It's just a lot of good things to a lot of good people.
By Joel McCord
Photographs by John Bildahl
The Magothy? How interesting, I wondered, could that river possibly be? Tucked between Annapolis and Baltimore, and an easy commute from Washington, D.C., it's so determinedly
suburban—just a collection of woodsy bedroom communities with names like Ulmstead and Berrywood and Capri Estates. No primeval forests, no picturesque farmland, no quaint crabbing villages with tumbledown piers. And not much in the way of history, either. Captain John Smith didn't even bother to include it on his 1608 map of the Chesapeake Bay. In his journal he called it a "creeke of little significance."
But after I got to know people who live on the river, and got out on the water myself, I was happily surprised by the Magothy. It's a wide, beautiful river that you can see in only one day, or you can explore it for days on end, lazing from creek to cove as long as you please. While it's true that some of the people who live on its banks are pushing the boundaries of environmental prudence, many others are documenting its history and helping to restore its health. And there really is some interesting history here. No famous battles or presidential birthplaces, but some history nonetheless. According to Marianne Taylor, a resident of the Magothy and author ofMy River Speaks: The History and Lore of the Magothy River(1998), the first alum factory in the United States was on this river (alum was an important product in the early 19th century because it was used as a base for gunpowder). Mostly, though, the Magothy was a working river through much of the 19th century, with ferries visiting market docks up and down each shore and lumber mills turning out boards for homes in New England. But in the late 1800s, things began to change as the farmers who had sold their produce at those docks sold off parcels near that water that developers turned into amusement parks and camps. Hotels and beach houses sprang up along the river, and folks from Baltimore took trains to stations near the south shore to spend a day on the river. After World War II, the transition to suburbia became complete as summer cottages evolved into year-round homes. "People came here to get away from the cities," says Taylor. "The Magothy's pulse was a bit slower."
It's a quiet weekday in September when I finally get out on the Magothy to see it for myself. I am the guest of Randy Thomas, who has invited me for a daylong tour of the river in his restored 1987 Baja, which he keeps tied up at a dock barely 30 yards from his backdoor. On the Magothy, there is a mix of gated McMansion communities and communities of small ranchers that were summer cottages until their owners moved in permanently. Thomas lives in Laurel Acres, one of the summer-cottage communities. It's on Cockey Creek, "where all the cocky people live," he jokes. "A lot of people here buy crappy houses and fix them up. They do whatever it takes to live on the water."
It's one of those late-summer days when the sun is so bright and the sky such a deep blue that everything you look at seems to pop up in sharp relief. And nobody should have to be in the office. From Thomas's dock, I can see large, fancy houses that were built almost all the way to the narrow lot lines and probably too close to the water to satisfy current environmental regulations. "The people in my neighborhood buy property and build and ignore the rules and pay the fines," he says. "When you're building a $750,000 house, what's another $2,500?"
We hop in the Baja, cast off and in moments are motoring slowly down the narrow creek. As we approach its mouth, we glide past two lovely old camps—the Grachur Club, founded in 1912 by Claude Bingham Whitby of Grace Methodist Church in Baltimore to provide moral training for teenage boys; and next to it, Camp Whippoorwill, a Girl Scout camp carved from 19 acres of farmland in the 1920s. A replica of a hand-carved totem pole stands near the mouth of the creek to mark the camps.
Turning downstream into the Magothy, we head southeast along the gradually widening river, with inviting forested coves and anchorages on all sides. As we pass North Ferry Point, we get a stunning view to the east—the full length of the remaining river, about five miles, past Gibson Island into the Bay. It's a gorgeous spot. Up on the bluff is a large Victorian house, the home of Marianne Taylor, the aforementioned Magothy historian, and her husband Robert. Since buying the house three decades ago, the Taylors have expanded it several times so that now, sitting in their glass-enclosed great room, they can track the sun from the minute it rises over the trees of the Eastern Shore until it sinks at the head of the river. Marianne Taylor has described the Magothy as a river of mystery. Even its name, she says, is baffling. On the one hand, she writes in her book, an Indian-language expert named Dr. Hamil Kenny says the name stems from an Indian phrase "mega, pi-meguke," which means a place without trees or a wide plain. But, on the other hand, the first time the river is labeled, on an English map drawn in 1663, it's called "Magoty"—the word "maggot" in older English usage meant a fantastic notion or a caprice. "I've been here in all the river's moods," Taylor says, "and there are times when it evanesces and just sparkles."
It was another mystery—the mystery of whether the ferry (of North Ferry Point) had once landed on the Taylors' property—that led Taylor to researching and writing about the history of the river. "When we bought the house, there were rumors about the ferry," she says. "But where was it? There's South Ferry Point right across the river, so it must've been here. We found old red bricks down by the beach, but there were no records, no newspaper accounts, nothing."
For a while Taylor put off her search to raise her three girls. Then she began again in the Maryland Hall of Records in Annapolis, where she pored over quadrant maps that listed old Indian campsites. Soon, she was compiling information about mills, farms and railroads.
Finally, four years later, she found what she had been seeking: the words "county dock" on an old map, right where they had found the bricks on their property. Later, divers traced the line of the bricks under the muddy water and out into the river to find the foundations of the old pier, the physical proof that Taylor had been looking for. "When we found that," says Taylor, "my husband and I went to Baltimore and had champagne at Tio Pepe's."
Thomas and I slowly motor past the spot where the Taylors found the long-sought remains of the ferry dock, then ease into Blackhole Creek and putt-putt past Lad Banner's old boathouse. As with many families on the Magothy, Banner's roots here are now generations deep. His grandfather, a Baltimore lawyer, bought a 33-acre spread back in 1913 as a family summer retreat. In the 1960s the land was subdivided so the children could each have their own piece of the property; then, later, as family members died, some of the lots were sold off. Now, Banner's own kids have left the area, and he and his wife Dot are the last of the clan—living in a 1913 cypress-and-cedar-shake bungalow on the remaining 10 acres of his grandfather's tract.
It was here, just inside the creek on the Banners' property, that the alum factory once stood. Historians had a pretty good idea of where it was, Banner says, and came knocking at his door one day, asking permission to search. In a repeat of the scene at the Taylors', divers traced a line of stones that didn't look quite natural and, sure enough, found the remains of the old pier. "Boy, were they happy when they found that," says Banner. So happy, in fact, that they gave the couple a certificate of appreciation, which they proudly display inside the door to their house.
As this is only the one-day tour, Thomas continues down the river and into Sillery Bay, protected from the open Chesapeake by exclusive Gibson Island, where beautiful homes cling to the hillsides and only residents and their guests get past the guardhouse at the mainland end of the causeway. The island carries a certain mystique for outsiders, but George Collins, the founder of Chessie Racing, says it is "no different than any other private community in Baltimore or Washington. We're all just lucky that they keep the post office open." In fact, while some of the 185 homes on Gibson Island are worthy of magazine photo spreads, most are small summer homes that have been converted for year-round use, says Collins, a former T. Rowe Price executive who chucked it all to go sailing. Even the house he and his wife bought in 1986 was a fixer-upper from the 1930s that had fallen into disrepair.
When most of the island was owned by John Gibson Jr. in the late 1700s, according to Taylor, it supported three farms. Other sources say the island was named for Colonel Joseph Gibson Jr., a local landowner who was taken prisoner by the British in 1813. Whatever the case, in 1921 a man named W. Stuart Symington Jr. bought the island and established the Gibson Island Club, a haven for golfers and yachtsmen (it's not clear whether he was related to the politicians from Missouri).
Although Symington went broke in the development effort, the haven remains. It was, in fact, the Gibson Island Yacht Squadron, established after Symington's death in 1926, that drew Collins to the island. "The boating scene was what got us down there," he has told me. "We were sailors and it made sense. It's a little different than some private communities, because you have the boating activity and you're on the Chesapeake Bay."
While Gibson Island may be a place apart, the tiny bay behind it, and particularly Dobbins Island, is a place for every man, woman and child. Maybe too many men, women and children. Some worry that it's being loved to death. The hospitably deep water behind Dobbins Island, a privately owned seven-acre crescent of sand, clay cliffs and pine trees, is a popular anchorage. You'll find anywhere from 100 to 300 boats anchored there on a warm summer evening, and enterprising merchants have been known to sell newspapers and croissants from small boats in the mornings. Only one boat is there on this weekday afternoon, anchored close to the beach, and three people are swimming.
Thomas says he has spent many afternoons through the years fishing in the river, then running into the Dobbins Island beach, building a fire to cook his catch and clambering over the cliffs. But these days he doesn't venture beyond the beach, because the island is eroding away and the cliffs are particularly vulnerable.
In fact, says Edward Wilson, who owns the island with his brother James, at least one person already has taken a nasty spill when a section of cliff crumbled under him, and they don't want it to happen again. "It's actually a very dangerous place. We don't think it's a good place for the public to try to climb around. We've put up no trespassing signs and painted the universal no trespassing mark—a blaze of blue paint—on the trees, but that doesn't seem to help."
The Wilsons, who grew up nearby and skipped school to play on the island when they were kids, bought it in 1999 as part of a deal for other property on the mainland. They've had it on and off the market ever since, says Wilson, and last fall they found a potential buyer, who has a year to study the island's potential before he is committed to the purchase. Because more than three-quarters of the island are already under a permanent conservation easement, development would be considerably limited, says Wilson. Shortly after they bought it, the Wilsons offered to sell the island to the state or to Anne Arundel County for a park, but both declined, saying that the cost of controlling erosion, building park stations, running power lines to the island and providing security far outweighed the benefits. "There isn't anything unique about the ecosystem or the wildlife on the island," says Wilson. "In fact, there's hardlyanywildlife—just a lot of people." Whether Dobbins eventually changes hands or not, Wilson adds, people still will be able to anchor there and swim in the water. In that way, he says, Dobbins will always be a "magical place."
As we start across the mouth of the river the Baja begins wallowing in the chop from the open Bay, and we learn quickly what Thomas calls one of the great advantages of the Magothy. Whatever it's doing in the Bay, the river, with its narrow mouth, will be a little calmer. "I've come down here some days thinking I'd run up to Baltimore and hang out in the Inner Harbor, but as soon as I got to the Bay I'd turn around, go up in the river and drop my fishing lines and the water's almost like glass."
Soon we're heading up Mill Creek in search of food and beer. We tie up at
Ferry Point (South Ferry Point, that is) Yacht Basin and head into Magothy River Seafood and Tiki Bar, which is built over the water and covered with a huge tent. For years owner Don Broglie sold carryout seafood from a small shack here, and when the marina changed hands eight years ago the new owners encouraged him to expand. "Of course, the county wouldn't allow us any new construction on the water, but they did tell us we could use a tent," Broglie says. "They even showed us how it could be done. It just sort of fell together." Now, he has 14 slips for customers who arrive by boat and offers free after-dinner cruises down to Dobbins Island on summer evenings. In bad weather, Broglie rolls down the sides of the tent and fires up the heaters.
It's getting late by the time Broglie is telling us about his life as a waterman before he got into the restaurant business, so, with apologies for cutting it short, we pay our bill and cast off. Just before we head back across the river, we slide into Cattail Creek. Paul Spadaro, the president of the Magothy River Association, lives up here in one of the converted beach houses with his wife, Sandy, their kids, and a couple of old Richardson powerboats in middling states of repair tied up to his dock. There'sOld Patches, the 1929 32-footer, a monument to Spadaro's days in graduate school at Syracuse. He had it when he met Sandy and, no matter what, he says, he'll never get rid of it. "You know, I was a graduate student," he explains. "I didn't have any money, was living in a bad part of town and got tired of tripping over drunks and prostitutes when I came home. So I was looking to move to a better neighborhood and found this boat in a shed. The owner laughed at me when I told them I was going to live on it."
When Spadaro put the boat into Lake Onondaga, he says, it leaked like a colander, so he hooked up a pump and slept onboard all night with his arm hanging into the bilge. "Whenever I felt my hand get wet," he says, "I turned on the pump." By 3 a.m., the shriveled dry planks had swollen with water and squeezed together, and the leaks stopped. Now, Spadaro reserves the old boat for what he calls "romantic cruises." He uses his other boat,Sandra Jean, a 1957 35-footer, for fishing and fun. "You know, you spill something, you drop something, it doesn't matter. It's a party boat."
Spadaro, who has been MRA president for 10 years, makes a living producing aeronautical maps. A few years ago, while working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, he used that job to recruit volunteers for stream monitoring on the river. "I got a list of all five thousand people who worked at NOAA headquarters and found all the ones who lived on the Magothy or in the Annapolis area," he explains. "You know, people who live on the river tend to want to take care of it."
After that, Spadaro turned one of his agency's problems into a way to help with one of the great challenges of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries—restoring oysters. Here was the problem: NOAA has a corps of divers who help with underwater research, but only two dive-training facilities. They can't get enough hours in the water to keep their credentials current. So Spadaro enlisted the divers to help with oyster-recovery work in the river. Everybody wins. The divers get their hours, and the river gets help building oyster reefs. The project has worked so well that there was a natural spat set in the river last year. "That's encouraging," says Spadaro, "assuming we can control the development."
At last, we're headed back up Cockey Creek. One more spin by the totem pole at Camp Whippoorwill and then into the slip at Thomas's place. A few minutes later, as I start winding my way through the narrow streets of the old summer home community, I can't help wondering about John Smith. If only he had turned up that "creeke of little significance," he would have had a lot more to say.
Cruiser's Digest: The Magothy River
The Magothy River is very forgiving. The entrance is almost due west of Baltimore Light, and once you've worked your way past the green beacon that marks the mouth (a large wooden structure known locally as the "Old Man"), the river opens wide. There's plenty of water from shore to shore, and for the most part the river is well marked.
There are a few places, however, where you want to watch yourself. If you're headed for the popular anchorage behind Dobbins Island, approach it by rounding its east end, because a long shoal stretches from its western tip to the mainland near Grays Point. According to local lore, this shoal once supported an oyster-shell road over which trucks drove to the island. A little farther up the river on the north side, erosion has created a tricky entrance to Blackhole Creek; give the green mark at the mouth all due deference.
On the south shore, Mill Creek and Dividing Creek share a common entrance just west of South Ferry Point. This is one of the few places on the river that is not well marked, so watch for the white shoal buoy on the right as you go in. If you're going up Dividing Creek, hang close to the buoy, keeping it to starboard; once you've cleared it, turn to starboard. There's a small but snug anchorage there. Another mark stands just off the point at the narrow entrance to Mill Creek; you can begin the turn to port into the creek when you can trace a line between the two markers and across the transom of your boat.
There are seven marinas and working boatyards on the Magothy; unless otherwise noted, they offer transient slips, restrooms and showers, and a pump-out facility:
Cypress Marine Inc. (410-647-7940) at Cypress Creek, 15 feet MLW; Laundromat, ship's store, repairs; no pump-out.
Deep Creek Restaurant and Marina (410-757-4045 or 410-974-1408) on Deep Creek,
6 feet MLW; gas and diesel, ice and beer, restaurant; no pump-out.
Fairwinds Marina (410-974-0758 or 301-261-1548) near the mouth of Deep Creek,
7 feet MLW; gas, ice, repairs, launch ramp; no transient slips, no pump-out.
Ferry Point Marina and Yacht Yard (410-544-6368) at Mill Creek and Dividing Creek,
10 feet MLW; ice and beer, restaurant, ship's store, repairs, launch ramp.
Gibson Island Marina (410-360-2500) at Grays Creek, 7 feet MLW; gas and diesel, ice, ship's store, repairs.
Hamilton Harbour (410-647-0733), 5 miles upriver, 12 feet MLW; gas, ice, ship's store,
repairs; no transient slips.
Magothy Marina (410-647-2356) at Crystal Beach, 10 feet MLW; gas and diesel, Laundromat, pool, ice, repairs, launch ramp.